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Don’t Criticize an Attorney’s “No” to Representation

Many times, when an attorney refuses to take a case, the prospective client takes the refusal personally. The prospective client feels let down, or slighted, or that the attorney just didn’t think the case was “worth enough.”

This isn’t always true. In many cases, an attorney who refuses a case is simply complying with his or her professional obligations.

Attorneys Must Decline Representation When Matters Fall Outside the Attorney’s Competence.

An attorney can, and in many cases must, decline to represent a prospective client when the client’s issues fall outside the attorney’s expertise, or when the attorney believes (in his or her professional judgment) that he or she cannot, should not, or prefers not to acquire the necessary skills to represent the client competently.

Attorneys May Decline Representation For Many Reasons, in Addition to Competence.

Attorneys are not required to accept a client, or to represent any person. In addition to issues of competence, attorneys may refuse representation for a variety of reasons. Some attorneys only accept certain types of cases and client issues, for example homeowners’ liability, personal injury, or professional malpractice. Some attorneys have to refuse a potential client because they don’t have time to adequately address the client’s needs. Sometimes, attorneys decline representation because accepting representation would cost the client more than the attorney is comfortable charging the client for the relevant work. If the lawyer needs to perform substantial research, prepare documents, or perform other functions which the attorney knows that he or she cannot perform quickly enough to bill a reasonable fee, the attorney can decide to refuse representation instead.

Generally speaking, it isn’t wrong, illegal, or unethical for an attorney to decline to represent a client — in fact, in some situations it’s the responsible choice. (There are some situations where an attorney’s reasons may violate anti-discrimination laws or other statutes, but this is relatively rare. In most cases, the attorney has the right to refuse a client.)

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Attorneys Need Not Explain Why They Refuse Representation

The law, and ethics guidelines, do not require an attorney to tell a prospective client why the attorney has decided to refuse, or pass on, representing that individual. Some attorneys do explain, especially in cases where the attorney believes an individual’s case or claim is without legal merit, but this is not required. Most attorneys prefer to simply pass on representation without a detailed explanation.

Attorneys Should Document a Refusal to Represent a Potential Client

When an attorney decides to reject representation, the attorney should document that refusal in a letter to the prospective client. Hard-copy letters (as opposed to emails) are the best option, and the attorney should keep a copy of the letter for record purposes. The letter should advise the prospective client to consult another attorney immediately, and warn the client of any approaching deadlines of which the attorney is aware. For example, if the client has received a complaint or a summons, the attorney’s rejection letter should warn the client about the deadline for a response and also contain a warning that a failure to respond by the relevant deadline could result in a court order and damages, fees, and/or penalties being assessed against the prospective client.

Don’t assume that an attorney’s refusal of representation is a personal slight. Attorneys have a variety of reasons for accepting (or refusing) a case or client matter, most of which have nothing to do with the client personally.

DO make sure that you consult another attorney promptly if an attorney refuses to represent you, and never, ever fail to respond to a court by a deadline just because you have trouble finding a lawyer. Whether you’re in Los Angeles County or elsewhere, the court will not “forgive and forget” a failure to respond to a complaint, a noticed motion, or any other legal matter just because you have trouble finding representation.

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